Vaping may seem like some new-fangled trend, but there is a concise and colorful history of vaping and the e-cigarette. Only, it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely where the history of vaping begins and where it departs from more traditional and ancient forms of smoking or vaping.
We don’t want to go too far back to the invention and use of the hookah, in ancient Persia, or even to the cultivation and use of tobacco in parts of South America since those topics probably deserve their own history written about them.
Maybe the best starting point would be when Herbert A. Gilbert, a young, educated Korean War veteran working in his father’s scrap yard, was looking for a solution to the problem of smoke from burning leaves wafting over to his neighbor’s yards.
Ahead of His Time
Herbert A. Gilbert, who was the first person to submit a patent for an electronic “smokeless” vaping device and is widely considered the father of the e-cigarette, was a lover of logic.
The young Gilbert had graduated with a B.A. in Business and was smoking two packs a day, but it was the smoke that would inevitably travel over to his neighbor’s yard whenever he burnt leaves in his yard that lead him to invent the e-cigarette.
Gilbert made the observation that some everyday items, like leaves and bark, and wood, posed no harm on their own, but when these same elements were dried, bundled together and burnt, the resulting smoke would be harmful.
But applying heat wasn’t necessarily the problem. As Gilbert noted in an interview he gave in 2016, “they used heat in my aunt’s bakery… they didn’t burn it, they cooked it.”
This lead Gilbert to make the important observation that later came to define the benefits of vaping over smoking, “To put it as simply as possible, the problem could not occur if there was no combustion. Eureka!”
On April 17, 1963, Gilbert submitted his patent for the “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” but, owing to the times he lived in; the Gilbert smokeless device failed to inspire action, both commercially and technologically.
In the 1960s, smoking was still widely accepted as a social norm. The landmark studies that directly linked tobacco to cancer were released only a few years before Gilbert submitted his patent.
But thanks to the concerted efforts of the tobacco industry, the general public wouldn’t be made aware of smoking’s links to cancer until the late 1980s, which is where our brief history of vaping takes us next.
Solutions to Problems
In the 1980s, Dr. Norman Jacobson was treating a patient more remarkable than most. For one, this patient had a very brief but illustrious resume with only two entries: 1) father of the microprocessor and 2) manager of the Apollo space program.
The patient was Phil Ray, and along with ushering the age of the microprocessor and by extension, the desktop computer, Mr. Ray was also fundamental to the development and progression of Herbert Gilbert’s original idea of a combustion-free way to ingest nicotine.
Ray was a smoker himself and well-aware of the dangers of smoking. His initial idea involved inhaling nicotine vapor through filter paper soaked in liquid nicotine – pretty low-tech for one of the inventors of the microchip! – but with the help of Dr. Jacobson and others, the idea of an e-cigarette quickly began to take form.
Only, there was no “e” in their original mock-ups of their e-cigarette. “It was not an electronic device,” said Jacobson in an interview he did in 2014 – J. Phillip Ray was already deceased at this time.
But one crucial additive and the most startling difference from the prototypes made by Gilbert was the fact that the Jacobson/Ray smokeless cigarette delivered a dose of nicotine to the user, unlike Gilbert’s invention that eschewed nicotine altogether.
Jacobson went on to describe at length what exactly their product consisted of:
There was no combustion involved. They looked like a cigarette, a piece of plastic, they were shaped like a cigarette, the tip was colored like a cigarette, they were the color of a cigarette and within the cigarette was filter paper which was soaked in nicotine. You inhaled it and got a dose of nicotine – no combustion, no smoke.
Reading that description, one can’t help but think of a cig-a-like that aims to mimic the look and feel of a cigarette without the combustion. Jacobson and Ray later perfected their “smokeless” cigarette and founded a company, American Tobacco Products Inc. bringing a product to market, the Favor – best tagline ever: “Do Yourself a Favor” – in the late 70s, early 80s.
Only they ran into some difficulties. For one, the FDA deemed the Favor a “new drug,” essentially a narcotic, and therefore unfit to be sold commercially without their approval.
Second, the liquid nicotine infused into the paper of their products would go bad in only a few days of being on the shelf. The nicotine would chemically decompose into cotinine, a bitter-tasting chemical that produced none of the effects of inhaling nicotine vapor.
Jacobson and Ray eventually sold their company, and although very few people remember the Favor, there is one invention credited to Jacobson that has withstood the test of time. In their initial trial studies, Jacobson could not and did not want to use the word “smoking” and “smokers” to refer to his participants, so he switched them out for two words he came up with himself, “vaping” and “vapers.”
Loss Begets Creation
“My real passion, like many other inventors, is to leave some trace behind,” so said, Hon Lik, the widely recognized inventor of the modern e-cigarette, in an interview back in 2015.
But it wasn’t just the desire to leave his mark on the world that propelled the Chinese pharmacist to develop and design what we know now as the commercial e-cigarette. Just like all the other men mentioned here, Hon Lik was a heavy smoker; two packs a day, just like Herbert Gilbert.
Just like Lik’s father, who eventually succumb to lung cancer, and whose death ultimately propelled the younger Lik not only to quit smoking but to devise a way to ingest nicotine without having to rely on combustion.
It’s not clear whether Lik had any idea about the smokeless non-tobacco cigarette patented by Herbert Gilbert back in the 60s, but by some form of serendipity, the design that Lik came up with mirrored Gilbert’s schematics.
But Lik’s innovation was to use a high-frequency piezoelectric element to cause a liquid nicotine solution to vaporize, and the resultant vapor would then be inhaled by the user. Lik submitted a patent in 2003, and e-cigarettes began hitting the Chinese market in 2004, eventually making their way to Europe, the US and the rest of the world.
A New Day
Today, vaping devices are myriad. In the dozen or so years between when Lik first patented his device and today, e-cigarettes have become a billion-dollar industry onto themselves.
Many vape companies, and even hobbyists and users who made modifications to their original e-cigarette or cig-a-like to allow for more customization and power, built upon Lik’s (and Gilbert’s) design to create numerous iterations of the e-cigarette.
Vape pens are what followed the initial e-cigarette or cig-a-like devices. And from there, manufacturers and users alike began to experiment with various formats, playing around with battery types, heating elements, and tank and atomizer systems.
“Mod vape” was adopted as the word to refer to battery-powered vaping devices whose power output could be regulated and controlled by the user. And while e-cigarettes are most closely associated with inhaling vaporized nicotine, other materials began to be used in vape mods and vaporizers.
Following the legalization of recreational marijuana in a few American states, different forms of THC were developed, like oils and concentrates, that could be “vaped” using the same format of most liquid nicotine vaporizers.
But all the new iterations of e-cigarettes, from vapor pens to more powerful vape box mods, owe a debt to those people who ushered along an idea originally started by a guy who didn’t want his neighbors to inhale the smoke from his burning yard clippings.
About the Author: Phyllis Baker is the blogger specializing in health issues, drug rehab and addiction treatment. Currently, she manages public relations for the quitting smoking community.
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